Back in the day, a five-hour drive just to spend a night outdoors was par for the course. But now that we're spoiled Coloradans with so much to do within an hour or two, there are whole mountain ranges out there we've never visitted just because they're on the other end of a couple hours in the car. One such range is the Sangre de Cristo mountains which stretch from southern Colorado into New Mexico. We camped near them last Thanksgiving at the Great Sand Dunes and drove past them once or twice as well.
We were looking for a casual backpacking trip and decided to try out a new range and a new paradigm; back East, we would normally do loops or point-to-point trips where the journey was the reason for hiking. This time, we would hike in somewhere, camp, climb a peak, then hike out. Amy poured over the guide books and chose Mt. Adams (13,931') as a good target. It turns out that Adams is one of the high peaks near the popular 14ers Kit Carson and the Crestones and this is an area that has always seemed interesting to me. Plans were laid, packs packed and we got to bed early... only to find that the rain of the night before had continued unabated and wasn't predicted to be done until sometime on Sunday.
One week and an inch or two of rain later, we found our plans resumed as we rolled into the surprisingly happening town of Crestone, CO, on the western side of the Sangres. The drive to the trailhead was interesting, though far from the worst our Subaru has managed. The trailhead itself was packed, but we managed to find overflow parking a couple hundred yards down the road. The sun was hot and we looked forward to being at higher altitude and amongst the trees.
Amy and I shouldered our packs and strapped Luna into her special doggy-pack. She's actually surprisingly okay with the concept, and is slowly learning that she can't run between narrow trees and rocks the way she normally would. We set off at 1pm up the trail through pleasant woods and 12 switchbacks, gaining 1000' in a mile. Looking at the elevation profiles, I realized that Willow Lake, our destination for the night was at 11,564' while the trailhead was at only 8800'. All that in only 3.7 miles makes for a pretty respectable climb. Oh well, we were committed.
The trail levelled out for a while gaining elevation slowly. Then started the second set of switchbacks. I'm all for moderate grades while carrying a heavy pack, but at some point it would be easier to handle a very short, steep set of stairs than miles of incremental gain.
Luna waits for Amy to cross the stream.
Sunset over Willow Lake.
By four o'clock, we crossed a stream cascading down a sheer cliff at the head of the valley. The sky had grown dark and ominous rumblings could be heard. We battened down for 20 minutes while the thunderstorm moved off, then continued up an impressive series of tight turns through steep talus. When we finally reached the top of the valley, it was back to trees and spectacular wild flowers. It started to rain again, this time harder, and trudged the remaining half mile or so to the lake.
Camping isn't allowed at the lake itself, but it is a very popular area, so there are lots of unofficial campsites down below the lake. There were probably two dozen tents scattered here and there through the woods, but we managed to find a nice campsite separated from everyone else, equipped with a fine view, a fire ring (stocked, even!), and nice chunk of bedrock for lounging upon. After setting up the tent, we trudged up to the lake itself to get water. Wow! It's not too big, but the eastern end is ringed with shear cliffs and a long waterfall empties into the deep blue-green water at the end. Above the lake soar the sheer faces of Challenger Point and other, unnamed peaks. The whole place was somewhat reminiscent of Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming in feel, even if the rock types are entirely different. We definitely weren't in the Front Range anymore! Dinner was cooked and we retired early as twilight faded from the western ramparts of Challenger Point above us.
Setting off from camp on Sunday morning.
Amy climbs the initial steep grass at 12,000'.
From the lake, we ascended a steep grassy slope to the northwest quickly warming in the bright morning sun. This was Luna's first time at altitude and she was having a blast. However, she scared up a ptarmigan and her chicks in short order and I had to quickly put her back on leash. The climb was tough, but we were rewarded with stunning views of Challenger and Willow Lake below, waterfall and all.
At 12,200', we levelled off and spent an hour cruising through a small basin full of willows, creeks, boulder, and wild flowers. Mt. Adams finally came into view to the northeast looking nicely pointy and not too far away. Across the valley, we could see that Challenger Point was the smallest of the local 14ers and the view only got better the higher we got. After a brief calorie break, we climbed more steep grassy slopes to the low-point on Mt. Adams' West Ridge at 12,900'.
Amy crosses the basin below Mt. Adams' west ridge. This is a gorgeous place! There are four peaks about 13,900' visible in this photo.
Ridge walking is always fun because you get views in two directions and your goal is usually clear above. In this case, we followed a faint trail along the south side of the ridge, occasionally skirting rocky patches or scree. But it was still a brutal ascent for something so non-technical and our lungs and legs burned. Amy was concerned with her rapidly dwindling reserves of energy and was aware we still needed to hike out.
On the West Ridge looking east (left) and north-west (right).
At 13,400', Amy and Luna called it quits and told me to go on without her. I started up the final 500' on slabs of Crestone conglomerate, marvelously chunky and varied rock. Before long, the going became distinctly harder as I scrambled over a small gendarme and across a narrow bit of pseudo-knife-edge. Ahead loomed the summit block and in this case, it really did block the way with a short, overhanging cliff. The guidebook suggests traversing left up a scree gully and approaching the summit from the north. Just to be contrary, I headed right across some 3rd-class slabs and grassy patches looking for a weakness in the cliffs. Just around the corner, I spied a low-angle dihedral that was quite comfortable and lead to the final summit slabs. I tip-toed up the final slabs and arrived at the summit.
Needless to say, the views were stupendous. I'm still not used to climbing high peaks in the summer and the incredible lushness all around was really something. The Crestones and Carsons loomed slightly higher and considerably more jagged to the south. The extreme flatness of the San Luis Valley to the west provided a nice foil for the rank upon rank of lower peaks that ran like a sea of green mirangue to the north. Several large lakes occupied cirques below and the sun beat down through a lot less air than usual.
The view south from Mt. Adam's summit features (left to right) Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Kat Carson, Kit Carson, and Challenger Point. Upper Willow Lake is the jade tarn at the left end of the valley below Obstruction Peak.
Looking back down the West Ridge toward UN13564 with our approach and the San Luis Valley visible over a mile below.
Summit time is precious and I would have loved to have stayed longer than 20 minutes, but Amy and Luna were waiting down below and we still had 5 miles and 5171' of descent to do, not to mention a four hour drive back to showers and bed. I descended reasonably quickly back to 13,400' where we had a brief lunch and started the descent. It went largely without incident and the weather continued to be grand. We paused at 12,500' for a nice wade in an alpine tarn that came up to our knees. Certainly I can't think of a better wading pond.
Trudging back down to camp with Willow Lake and the glacial cirque above in the background.
Our thoughts immediately turned to sustanence and the traditional post-hike pizza (or equivalent). However, rural Colorado on a Sunday evening doesn't usually offer much in the way of options. Gas station food is often all you'll get and we didn't have much hopes for the small town of Crestone. Much to our surprise, we happened upon the Silver Crest Palace, a genuine old-fashioned saloon with everything but the swinging doors. It was doing brisk business and quickly provided vittals entirely adequate to our needs. Also a wonderful bit of local color.
After much nocturnal driving on monotonous roads, we got back to Boulder at nearly midnight. The temperature was still 80 degrees and apparently this weekend had been sweltering. Tiring though it was, climbing Mt. Adams was a great way to beat the heat. It was a great trip and a nice chance to do some actual camping. Luna survived her first real backpacking trip and her first time at altitude. Amy performed marvelously on what turned out to be a fairly grueling ascent. The scenery was first rate and the setting marvelously new. I look forward to exploring the Sangres further and am reminded now that Colorado is a big state with lots more mountains than the ones I can see in my back yard.
The Wilderness Journal